- Victorian Women and the Theatre of Trance: Mediums, Spiritualists, and Mesmerists in Performance
Situating trance performance within the context of Victorian culture, Amy Lehman asks whether [End Page 294] nineteenth-century British women were "empowered or victimized by the theatre of trance in which they performed" (3). She answers her question by suggesting that patriarchal assumptions about gender paradoxically opened the door for women to assume positions of authority within trance performance, since they were thought to have weaker constitutions than men and thus could be overtaken and controlled by outside forces more easily. As Lehman explains: "It was a common assumption that women were prone to uncontrollable emotional, spiritual or erotic fits, which might be linked to occult powers or phenomena" (17). Such an attitude inadvertently permitted women to become some of the most celebrated trance performers of the era.
Offering a perfunctory overview of nineteenth-century Western theatre in her introduction, Lehman proceeds to detailed individual chapters devoted to the most well-known Victorian trance performers, such as Elizabeth O'Key, the Fox sisters, Cora L. V. Richmond, Anna Cora Mowatt, and Florence Cook, as well as chapters on related topics like mesmerism, medical theatre, Victorian acting theory, and the séance as theatre. The book roughly follows a chronological order in its discussion of performers and topics, beginning with the mesmeric performances that arose in the 1830s, moving through the rise of spiritualism at mid-century, and ending with the materialization séance performances of the 1870s.
The chapter on the career of O'Key is particularly interesting in its explication of the opportunity and power that these performances offered women. O'Key was a mesmeric performer who appeared in numerous lecture demonstrations in London during the 1830s. She performed under the influence of Dr. John Elliotson, one of the first English physicians to experiment with mesmerism as a treatment for young women thought to be suffering from nervous disorders. Lehman chronicles Elliotson's controversial methods and exhibition of O'Key, drawing upon articles that were published in The Lancet concurrently with the performances. Noting the bold and demanding behavior that O'Key began to exhibit, these articles include detailed descriptions of her actions during the trance performances, such as the flippant and antagonistic demeanor she sometimes exhibited when mesmerized. Lehman observes that these mesmeric performances offered an opportunity for O'Key to express rebellion, dissatisfaction, and hostility about a number of issues, such as religion, the medical profession, and women's subordinate position to men, in a way that would have been unacceptable under normal circumstances.
In the chapter titled "'Double Consciousness' in Acting Theory and Trance State," Lehman looks at how some professional acting theories of the nineteenth century were closely aligned with psychological theories that sought to explain how one person could seem to exhibit two distinct personalities. This notion of "double consciousness" was often used to explain what occurred during a trance state, and was also used to explain the way in which actresses were able to effectively portray characters in theatrical productions, thus creating a distinct tie between trance entertainments and the legitimate theatre. Lehman also notes the celebrity status held by the major trance performers, and compares it to that of some of the most popular stage actresses of the time, such as Sarah Bernhardt, Charlotte Cushman, and Fanny Kemble.
In chapters devoted to individual performers, Lehman continues her exploration of how trance performance afforded opportunities that were unavailable to most women at the time, but how it also could be a locus of significant stress and a catalyst for victimization. She observes, for example, that Kate and Maggie Fox, the first celebrities of séance theatre, eventually suffered from an "ambiguous social status" and ostracism that hindered their romantic relationships. Each struggled with poverty and alcoholism later in life (86). Throughout the book, Lehman also shows, however, that performing as a trance medium offered women the opportunity to express their views on religion, politics, and other important...